Bradley Cooperhas a problem. Sure, it all looks good on the outside. Family, fame, fortune, and with his first film as director, he’s made the most successful contemporary love story of all time. That’s exactly the problem Bradley Cooper has.
It has been so long since we have been able to equate a success or a love story with high art or artists that we may well have forgotten how. And now, withA Star is Born’s eight nominations for Academy Awards, the problem is likely to be exposed. “Bradley is a star.” “He’s young… he’ll have plenty of opportunities.” If this, as I suspect, explains outcomes in other awards voting, voters will have certainly missed the point. This isn’t Bradley Cooper’s opportunity, it’s theirs to appreciate the depth and value of this film before its legacy outlasts their chance to participate in it.
In his review of BlackKklansman (2018), starring John David Washington and Adam Driver, Collin Willis notes that recent films Get Out (2107) and Sorry to Bother You (2018) also address racial conflict past and present. Here is a top 10 list of other films about race in America you may or may not have seen.
Here we are at the halfway point of 2018. I know, already? You know what recent trends reveal. Most Oscar Awards quality films come out in the last month of the year. A number appear in the fall season. Yet each year a few surprises emerge from the early season fair of films. How? A cult of popularity develops. A limited release strategy suddenly blossoms from viral word of mouth. Remember 2017? Oscar winner Get Out premiered in February.
Here’s the lesson. Stick the landing. I enjoyed Jurassic World from the beginning, the middle, and the end. We moviegoers know what we want, and we know what we like. Movie makers often appreciate that, meaning us. Infinity War didn’t deliver. If you doubt that just check any source of viewer responses.
I don’t care about the setup for your sequel. You can give an audience an enjoyable ending and still setup the sequel at the same time. Infinity War is a comic, so I guess it falls into the category of fantasy. And don’t assume I have anything against fantasy. Bilbo and Frodo are all that and a bag of chips. Jurassic World is science fiction. I think that matters.
By developing a taste for science fiction you are enabling yourself to contemplate important issues of the day. You can engage your curiosity. You can form ethical arguments. You begin to think and act in a way that determines your future, and you can do good things for someone following in your footsteps. Science fiction perpetually compares the now with the what if. It asks this question. What would happen if we had the ability to do such and such? History has taught us that the less prepared we are for advances in technology, the more bad decisions we suffer from. Remember DDT? Shouldn’t we commit the time to consider the harm of new abilities before we make ourselves too vulnerable? Science fiction has proven to be one of the most reliable tools we have to engage in the debate.
The science in Jurassic World is cloning. Genetically modified organisms, otherwise know as dinosaurs, are brought to life by combining original ‘dino’ DNA with other animals’ filling in the missing pieces. In a fairly frightening manner, the movie weighs the possible outcomes of producing genetically modified animals for profit. I’ll borrow from one of my favorite 70’s sci-fi TV shows, the Six Million Dollar Man, which introduced us to the idea of the bionically enhanced human, who’s famous line is “We have the technology. We can make you stronger, faster, better than before.” The antagonists in the film decide to do just that when they investigate the possibility of turning a dinosaur into a military weapon.
Today we are faced with a number of staggering challenges from the technology we now, or very soon will possess. What are the right answers for whether or not we should clone animals, or humans? Who should police the internet? What are the worst consequences for us of the dark web? Can there be rules and punishments for cyber warfare and cyber espionage? Where will unchecked gene research lead us? More good than harm? Will that depend on how careful we are? Who will decide? These are a few of the necessary questions. Turn to your favorite science fiction book or movie to consider the answers.
If you have never appreciated the science fiction genre before, there are many places to go for recommendations. I will offer some suggestions. Here is my Mount Rushmore of authors.
Suggested Science Fiction
Books by or films based on the writing of
Philip K. Dick
Let me give an honorable mention to Neal Stephenson, whose novel Seveneves promises to offer some of the best in science fiction movies to date. Read the book now before the first movie comes out.
Documentary of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, starring Fred Rogers
The film portrays the relationship between the educational children’s public television series Mister Roger’s Neighborhood (1968-2001), and its creator, writer, composer, and host, Fred Rogers.
The message of the show was simple. However the substance of the show was very deep and highly complex. A subtle irony associated with it developed around the observation that for some, the simplicity of the program may have masked the inherent brilliance from them. So they failed to appreciate the true value it had for children.
I find a parallel with the Biblical account of Jesus of Nazareth. Many of his messages appeared simple on the surface. Yet the substance of what Jesus communicated has astounded countless readers over the generations with its complexity and depth. Personally, I think that the reaction to what Jesus said tells you more about the person who forms their opinion, than it does about Christ. Comparatively, the same applies to Fred Rogers. Your reaction to him and his television show reveals more about you, than it does about the value of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
One of the takeaways for me from the documentary was how important the manner in which Fred Rogers acknowledged the dignity of each individual child was. Another was how selfless his commitment to children seemed to be. And another was the contribution he made to so many lives. There were more for me, but I’m focusing on these three.
Fred Rogers gave his total attention to children. He answered serious questions about life for them. He created an atmosphere where spending time together was more important than mindless humor, and he incorporated music to aid memory, create comfort, and impart joy. His respectful approach was unparalleled, and sadly, has not been replicated to this day.
One unique aspect of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is that while other educational programs focused on teaching reading, vocabulary and arithmetic, it focused instead on teaching kids how to think and mature as human beings, how to deal with the realities of life like friendship, responsibility, kindness. I’d imagine every key concept was covered short of income tax. Fred Rogers did this because he cared that TV could harm children if all it gave them was relative garbage (vis a vis the saying ‘garbage in garbage out’). I think it was his Christian calling, which speaks to his belief in practicing what Jesus preached.
He was determined to counter the mindless entertainment forced into homes and provide quality content for the benefit of children, regardless of the challenging circumstances or misguided critics, which often were too many. My favorite part of the film was when Rogers faced off against the U.S. Senate effort to cut funding for public television in order to put the money into the Vietnam War. The documentary is well worth seeing for just that scene alone.
The contribution Fred Rogers made to the lives of so many people is best exemplified by his statement that ‘you are special just the way you are’. He believed this about himself, and he was aware that so many children struggled in their childhood and later in life because of their lack of self esteem and the emotional and psychological handicaps inflicted upon them as a result. His legacy, generations of well adjusted people, is a testament to what he was able to accomplish because of this belief.
Can you remember your first motion picture? For me, I don’t so much remember the first one I ever saw, but the first one that I remember seeing. Alfie, starring Michael Caine and Shelley Winters. I imagine that I was younger than the age when most remember their first movie. Perhaps you really had no exposure to them so you waited until you were older.
If movie going was a family thing for you then as a kid you didn’t have a say, did you? One thing I attribute my love for films to is that early on I saw so many of those classics of the 1960s. We lived in Alaska when the entire television broadcast consisted of one black and white channel. As chance would have it, one of my father’s duties was to operate the projector for the theater at the local naval base. I tagged along and got to watch whatever motion picture he was shipped to screen. For a kid to have free run of an empty auditorium is a special kind of adventure. Arriving early, I’d wander around indulging my fantasies unsupervised, while dad maneuvered the heavy metal film canisters, removed the massive cellulose reels, and threaded rolls of it through the machinery with surgical precision. Of course, one of my responsibilities was to police the seemingly razor sharp edged empties.
My impressions were memorable. Michael Caine could command a scene like few others, the charisma that has powered one of the most prolific careers in the industry was easy to see back then. The movies from 1966 were memorable for me and I treasure their artistry with a special place for the magic that I – among many – credit to them. NevadaSmith has that status. There is no better film for showing the talent that Steve McQueen possessed. His hero epitomized the essence of the revenge plot. The story portrays racial conflicts from an individual perspective, allowing the viewer to appreciate the reasons why how we treat each other matters.
My favorite western from that year is not The Good, The Bad, The Ugly, because it doesn’t capture the America of my imagination, in spite of Clint Eastwood’s machismo. The Rare Breed and James Stewart do. Depth of feeling is one way to judge a film, as a standard to assess quality. I did cry watching it. And I cried watching Born Free. More than once. But I laughed too. Though not while watching Born Free, watching TheGhost and Mr. Chicken. The masters of the art know it is more the facial expression, the body control, in concert with lines spoken, that capture funny. Don Knotts, his comic genius on full display, may not have garnered the full recognition warranted for his performances. Watch it yourself, and dare to disagree with me.
One last thing. In case you were wondering, one of my first movie memories WAS seeing Bambi on the big screen.
First Reformed is written and directed by Paul Schrader. It stars Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried and Cedric Kyles.
This film has religious themes. Yet at its core it is a film about the human condition. Ethan Hawke portrays minister Reverend Toller who presides over a handful of attendees in an historic church building. He is employed by mega church Pastor Jeffers, played by Cedric Kyles. One of his churchgoers, Mary, a pregnant Amanda Seyfried, seeks Toller’s help with her husband whom she is desperate to keep from being sent back to prison.
The approach to the story is brutal, stark, and emotionally jarring, sensitive viewers should be cautioned about the content as some could find it too disturbing.
The style of the film is the main character. It brought to mind Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood’s 1992 masterpiece about an aging gunslinger William Munny, in Wyoming circa 1881. The mood and the tone are clearly set as we are introduced to the fragile psychological state of Reverend Toller. His conflict is one that would challenge anyone. He has suffered loss, and in the process, betrayed his personal beliefs, with both physical and emotional consequences. Schrader manages to fill the screenplay with such a large quantity of ideas, you no doubt will miss some, but those that resonate with you will cause you pause.
The grace of this story is that from within it we can draw a relationship with scores of people who face similar issues during their lifetime. You see First Reformed, and you can consider the personal choices you have been making, even if your life looks nothing like any of those on the screen. Beyond that, it provides a polemic on the societies we live in and the world in general, by questioning who is responsible for the ills that surround us. Is it God? Is it mankind? Do our actions define what we believe? Do we have the free will to destroy the planet? If so what does that say about God?
The film will demand that you pay attention, and consider each and every nuanced aspect of the content and how it relates to other aspects of what takes place, in order to appreciate the messages. It becomes clear that this film is in some ways simple on its face, but at the same time complex beyond expectation. You could say that this is a story about religion that doesn’t preach. Or a tragic Shakespearean (sic) rendering of AnInconvenient Truth. What you cannot say is that it doesn’t deliver a powerful punch, a thoughtful story, and a contemplation of our spiritual condition.
Let’s look beyond the message of Star Trek and see where it finds us. First I’ll argue that this is an entertaining blockbuster with mediocre aspirations as a science fiction standard bearer. Will you enjoy it as time and money well spent? Yes. Will you think twice about it as you leave the theater? No. If you accept the premise of mediocrity then ask me, why need we look further?
My answer takes the form of a postulated question. Did you hear the message that mankind is its own worst enemy?
SPOILER ALERT GALORE
ICYMI: Idris Elba aka Krall embodies the role of the villain as a human, albeit one who’s enhanced far beyond mortal man. You might say he’s kind of a cross between Frankenstein’s monster and scifi Dracula. My complements to the script makers. There’s nothing like mining the best, most often copied material for another bite at the apple, or the neck, or the box office. With the dollars at stake (2013’s Into Darkness more than $450 million in revenue- Beyond budget ~$185 million) would you risk original work when you can trot out tried and true formula?
And when our esteemed thespian, see Beasts of No Nation, asks as to his motivation, director Justin Lin’s reply; why you’re a disgruntled employee! Talk about going postal. And Krall delivers the mail with a rare combination. Can you say spider and bee fetish? His base of operations is a planet surrounded by nebula where spaceships maroon while their crews become entangled in a web-like comatose state which he uses to extract from them what he needs. The product here is not honey but hate. His forces, however, do swarm like no hive you’d ever want to stumble across. The Federation is nonplussed to wield any technology that can withstand Krall’s weaponry.
Here I suggest is where the message digs it’s foundation. When we lift the lid on his coffin we discover Krall was heretofore our model citizen, warrior, officer and gentleman. What happened was that the Federation took the highly trained and experienced combat veteran and gave him a civilian job, having ended all wars and the need for his old ways. It has been thirteen years since numbered American soldiers have faced a two front war; one in Iraq and another in the minds of those afflicted with PTSD and other related issues. Whether or not American combat veterans have experienced being more prone to violence once returned home, the message on screen was clear. Captain Edison struggled with the loss of his military identity. He faced a consequence of being rewarded for his sacrifice and bravery with being lost in space. He was left behind. Forgotten. Edison was ultimately left for dead with little or no sign that his employers cared about either him, his subordinates, or his service. As time passed his mental state deteriorated, eventually creating the fertile soil from which Krall emerged.
The direct line conclusion from the path laid out by Beyond is that societies bare the risks associated with placing soldiers in harms way. The results could reveal themselves long after the damage has been done.
I, or shall I say the filmmakers, offer you more messages than these.
The story’s overall theme that is revisited throughout hammers home one mantra. Families and friends who commit to unite will strive together and reach their potential to overcome whatever obstacles arise.
The danger that often occurs is when we forget this belief and sabotage it through self destructive decisions. Chris Pine’s Kirk does just that when the unending, unconquerable, infinite space defeats his sense of adventure, his desire to be challenged, and his dream of achievement. The subject of his failure: purpose. Zachary Quinto’s Spock takes a different route to reach the same end. Grief, perhaps the strongest manifestation of what causes us to question ourselves, to the point we completely derail, is this half human’s Achilles heel as well. He chooses to abandon his celestial family to serve what he thinks is his ethnic responsibility to the fatherland, or what’s left of it.
The biggest reason why 13 films and 37 years of the Star Trek saga resonate with moviegoers is the bond that built the original Gene Roddenberry TV creation. Beyond is on target with this piece and Karl Urban’s McCoy delivers the glue gun. The series explored not outer space so much as it did the relationship between Kirk, Spock, and McCoy. Their journey through the ups and downs of complex and conflicted emotions had more to do with their survival than any technological techniques they mastered.
McCoy reminds Spock why they mean so much to each other and why it matters. When they bring that message back to Kirk, he takes his exercise of trust, inspiration, and leadership to another level seeing Uhura, Scott, Sulu and Chekov prove once again that their place is on the Enterprise and his home is with them.
This is the best part of the science fiction Beyond offers. There is nothing new here. That is the basis for my grade of C. Star Trek gets a pass from me because it is a production that keeps the genre alive though it falls short of advancing it. I hail science fiction because I see it as the best genre for bringing together the moral and ethical dilemmas within the human condition as they intersect with apocalyptic aspects of advanced technology. The more we role play these hypothetical scenarios the more time we will have to consider them before we have to deal with them in our reality. Are we ready to face global warming?
So I salute Star Trek Beyond. Beyond’s success bridges the gap between great science fiction movies of the past…Blade Runner, 12 Monkeys, The Matrix…and the next great scifi story which will take a rightful place in cinematic history. As for the Star Trek franchise I offer only these words: Live long and prosper.
With two rat terriers trotting at his heels, and a long wooden staff in his hand, J.R. Gavin leads me through the woods to one of the old swamp hide-outs. A tall white man with a deep Southern drawl, Gavin has a stern presence, gracious manners and intense brooding eyes. At first I mistook him for a preacher, but he’s a retired electronic engineer who writes self-published novels about the rapture and apocalypse. One of them is titled Sal Batree, after the place he wants to show me.I’m here in Jones County, Mississippi, to breathe in the historical vapors left by Newton Knight, a poor white farmer who led an extraordinary rebellion during the Civil War. With a company of like-minded white men in southeast Mississippi, he did what many Southerners now regard as unthinkable. He waged guerrilla war against the Confederacy and declared loyalty to the Union.In the spring of 1864, the Knight Company overthrew the Confederate authorities in Jones County and raised the United States flag over the county courthouse in Ellisville. The county was known as the Free State of Jones, and some say it actually seceded from the Confederacy. This little-known, counter-intuitive episode in American history has now been brought to the screen in Free State of Jones, directed by Gary Ross (Seabiscuit, The Hunger Games) and starring a grimy, scruffed-up Matthew McConaughey as Newton Knight.Knight and his men, says Gavin, hooking away an enormous spider web with his staff and warning me to be careful of snakes, “had a number of different hide-outs. The old folks call this one Sal Batree. Sal was the name of Newt’s shotgun, and originally it was Sal’s Battery, but it got corrupted over the years.”